Patrick W. Conner, West Virginia University

title.none: Baker, Beowulf: Basic Readings

identifier.other: baj9928.9611.001 96.11.01

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Patrick W. Conner, West Virginia University, U47C2@WVNVM.WVNET.EDU

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1996

identifier.citation: Baker, Peter S., ed. Beowulf: Basic Readings. New York & London: Garland, 1995. Pp. xx, 306. $40.0021951695219. ISBN: ISBN 0-8153-0098-0 (hardback) \ 0-8153-0491-9 (paperback).

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 96.11.01

Baker, Peter S., ed. Beowulf: Basic Readings. New York & London: Garland, 1995. Pp. xx, 306. $40.0021951695219. ISBN: ISBN 0-8153-0098-0 (hardback) \ 0-8153-0491-9 (paperback).

Reviewed by:

Patrick W. Conner, West Virginia University

Although often asserted by my non-Anglo-Saxonist friends in a moody frenzy of misplaced commiseration, the rumor of the death of the study of Old English literature is highly exaggerated. Scholarly and intellectual disciplines do not die amidst a flurry of pedagogical publishing projects like those currently available to Anglo-Saxonists. Peter Baker's collection of basic readings on Beowulf could signal all by itself the fitness of our enterprise; the fact that it is the penultimate volume of four (Robert Bjork's collection of Cynewulf: basic readings has now been published) to appear in the first couple of years of the new Basic Readings in Anglo-Saxon England series edited by Carl Berkhout, Paul Szarmach, and Joseph B. Trahern, Jr. signals a robust expectation of the need for collections like this one. That expectation ultimately is grounded in the fact that the discipline continues to attract students more than two decades after most doctoral programs stopped requiring it in every graduate's curriculum, as a long discussion on ANSAX-L among those teaching Old English made clear in March, 1996 (v. subject line on ANSAXDAT, "Is mine the biggest?"). The expectation is also grounded in the fact that scholarship concerning Beowulf has maintained a steady output of about fifty items a year for the last decade, which nearly doubles the output of two decades ago, as documented in the annual bibliography of Anglo-Saxon England.

I am not aware of another collection of Beowulf criticism like this one. As Baker succinctly puts it in his "Introduction," "I am concerned less with older orthodoxies than with the movement away from them and the development and testing of new ways to think about the poem." Consequently, J. R. R. Tolkien's "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" is not included. This reviewer recommends R. D. Fulk's excellent collection, Interpretations ofBeowulf:A Critical Anthology , for those who want Philpotts, Tolkien, Magoun and others who wrote the pieces which best capture the diachronic flow of reception and critical approaches in and around Beowulf from 1928 to 1986. The book under review here, however, is not that book, and some will therefore complain that these readings are not the "Basic" readings promised in the subtitle, because the basic readings have to include certain standard works which have become almost as much a part of the Anglo-Saxon canon as Beowulf itself.

I, however, am inclined to agree with Peter Baker's selections as basic. What is basic is what makes up the base on which the current superstructure depends, and the superstructure of Beowulf criticism currently depends not upon Tolkien's extraordinary essay. That rescued the poem from regard primarily as historical data and philological minutiae, but its work now is done. Current critical issues on the poem are erected on orality, historicism, gender studies, cultural studies, textual studies, dating arguments, and the potential to construct a new philology. To understand how these things inform Beowulf is to place the poem in our current literary and intellectual context without undermining its own peculiarities. That is what Tolkien himself was doing in "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics." Sometimes, Anglo-Saxonists act as if the object of their study is not of this time and place, and therefore they need not concern themselves with the literary world in which we live. As critical approaches move from the author-centered text (always problematic in an age of anonymous authors) to the readerly centered text (and we're not really so sure about the readers, either), so issues of our time and place cannot, of course, help but impinge upon the Beowulf we read.

E. G. Stanley's "Beowulf" (1966) is then a fine choice to begin this collection, as its opening lines make clear:

We have no traditional approach to Beowulf. We are / entirely ignorant of the author's intentions except for / that we may claim to be able to infer from the poem / itself. (p. 3)

The essay attempts to explore not a context, Germanic or otherwise, but simply to examine what chance there is to realize any context for the poem. Of Stanley's Beowulf criticism, I personally prefer his essay in the Arthur G. Brodeur festschrift, "Haethenra Hyht in Beowulf," because it comes closer to helping me construct a coherent, satisfying reading of the poem, but Baker's selection of this essay, originally published in Stanley's own collection, Continuations and Beginnings, is better for the Basic Readings collection, because it asks the most basic questions about the poem, and posits no final answers. Stanley, himself, probably would not like to think he had written a post- structural, post-modern essay on the poem, but he has, albeit without the specialized vocabulary such essays often use. He has done so by questioning long held assumptions about the poem and by arguing that what scholars say about it is contingent on how they can know what they say.

Well-chosen essays by two other major contributors to the development of what we might call the current received interpretation of the poem are also included: Fred C. Robinson's "Elements of the Marvelous in the Characterization of Beowulf: A Reconsideration of the Textual Evidence" (1974), and Stanley B. Greenfield's "The Authenticating Voice in Beowulf" (1976). Robinson's article demonstrates how the "older orthodoxies" to which Baker alludes in his introduction have been constructed through editorial recensions and a tradition of commentary which more often has been generated by previous commentary than by a critical return to the text as witnessed in the unique manuscript and the earliest editions of it. It is a reception study with something of an essentialist ax to grind, which is that only the text has the wherewithal to comment upon the text. I am sympathetic to this point of view in Beowulf and other early texts wherein the cultural context is necessarily constructed by scholars from fragments of many sorts, because I cannot see what else we can do; I would not agree with it if we were talking about a modern text, such as John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath where the cultural context is quite knowable, although debatable from the points of view of several ideologies. At some point fragments coalesce into a knowable culture, but they do so seldom in our period, which is one of the things which makes Anglo-Saxon studies both fascinating and frustrating. Greenfield's smart New Critical study, "The Authenticating Voice in Beowulf" can be read against Robinson's textual project quite profitably, for the "voice of the poem" (p. 107) -- Greenfield's phrase for what many would now call the "subject position" -- requires and therefore assumes a polysemous text whose existence Robinson would seem to deny in his textual studies of the three episodes he examines.

Two articles address broad aspects of the cultural context of Beowulf and, by extension, much of the Anglo-Saxon poetic tradition. One of these is Larry Benson's justly famous essay, "The Pagan Coloring of Beowulf (1967) and the other is Eric John's less well-known historical study, "Beowulf and the Margins of Literacy" (1973/4). Benson's article enlarges the issue of the audience of Beowulf beyond merely separating the worlds of Christians and pagans in the poem, and provides a basis for some interesting cultural studies approaches to Beowulf engaging identity politics and other ideological analyses. John's article turns back to the poet, and attempts to define from the cultural details he chooses as context for his tale something about his social status and his occupation. "It is essentially a poem . . . written from, about, and [to] the class of retainers" (p. 74). So bold a statement from so careful an historian is bound to nourish those same discussions on the milieu of the poem in fascinating ways which our students will carry back to their seminars on such currently popular debates as textual politics, literature and exchange, or class and culture.

To this set of essays, we might also add Colin Chase's "Beowulf, Bede and St. Oswine: The Hero's Pride in Old English Hagiography" (1985) as another which provides the data for a fascinating cultural question. Why are hagiographic accounts of the Age of Bede less heroic than those of the tenth and eleventh century, and what has this to do with Beowulf? If Chase is right that the poem points to "the harsh and unrecognized error in judgment which confuses a heroic military ethic with an ethic of sovereignty" which his comparisons with the eleventh-century Vita Oswini make possible, then we have a basis on which to begin to debate the relationship of the poem to monastic politics and all of the cultural issues that it raises. It would seem to me that a useful companion to this essay is Marijane Osborn's "The Great Feud: Scriptural History and Strife in Beowulf" (1978) which Baker includes in his compilation. The essay problematizes the classical Beowulfian binary of Christian culture versus pagan Germanic culture, and the writer appreciates that these are, indeed, no simple opposed absolutes: Osborn suggests that the Anglo-Saxon world accommodated both world views in its secular and religious communities and the poet therefore distinguishes between "two levels of knowledge" throughout the poem. Chase's article would seem to offer even more data for this point of view.

Two articles use Germanic materials in fresh ways, and thus open up the whole question of ethnic intertextuality in early vernacular literature. Carol J. Clover's "The Germanic Context of the Unferth Episode" (1980) is a fascinating attempt to interpret the so-called "flyting" between Beowulf and Unferth in terms of the Old Norse corpus and leads to the fascinating conclusion that Unferth must be seen as a formal interrogator of Beowulf for the assembly, and not as a mean-spirited retainer who merely introduces a dramatic moment. The value of this piece to the student newly come to Old English studies is not only that it supports a useful interpretation of the episode which has ramifications for all further courtly scenes in Heorot, but it also introduces the student to a positive and valuable comparative method which anyone who has read the Grettissaga knows to be productive for this poem, even if the method is flawed for lack of contemporaneous traditions. The second essay, however, addresses just that problem. Roberta Frank's "Skaldic Verse and the Date of Beowulf" (1981) demonstrates that Alfredian or post-Alfredian skaldic poetry provides excellent analogues to Beowulf in tone, vocabulary, and style, and suggests that it is not impossible that Norse poets were influenced by English tastes, particularly if Beowulf were a late composition. These conclusions are easily discussed in view of the social contexts supposed by the Benson and Osborn articles.

Dating, of course, has been a major topic in Beowulf studies in recent years. This is a difficult, technical subject which students are not usually prepared to debate. It is therefore one of the most laudable aspects of this compilation that a newly commissioned article by Roy Liuzza on "The Dating of Beowulf has been included. Liuzza provides a history of the reasons which have underpinned the dating of the poem, and proceeds to show how the logic by which they were adduced often undermines them. He describes the importance of knowing the date of Beowulf as basic to recognizing its historicist and historical dimensions, and concludes that the problems inherent in dating the poem remind us "that our simplest actions as readers of Old English are not so simple, that our work, whether we like it or not, is constantly and intimately and profoundly involved in theoretical issues of language, literature, and textuality" (p. 295).

Liuzza's essay also provides an excellent background against which to read Kevin S. Kiernan's "The Legacy of Wiglaf: Saving a Wounded Beowulf." This essay was originally published in The Kentucky Review in 1986, three years after it was read at the University of Kentucky. It is Kiernan's own detailed summary of his work on the problem of dating Beowulf from the manuscript which contains it, and will serve as an excellent introduction to his monumental study of the manuscript, text, and its composition, Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript (which has just been published in a revised edition by the University of Michigan Press). For the Basic Readings collection, Kiernan has revised his text ten years after its publication, particularly with a view toward refuting David Dumville's more narrow dating on the basis of the co-occurrence of the two hands in the manuscript in "Beowulf Come Lately: Some Notes on the Palaeography of the Nowell Codex," (Archiv 225 [1988]: 49-63).

As important as it is that students using this collection see here that Beowulf studies are in no way inferior to other literary studies which tax current approaches to reading and to analyzing textuality, it is equally important that those same students come to appreciate the special nature of technical problems posed by the poem. Therefore, Mary Blockley and Thomas Cable's "Kuhn's Laws, Old English Poetry, and the New Philology" is a welcome addition to the collection, newly commissioned by Baker for this purpose. The article points out how linguistics, properly understood as a discipline and not merely given lip service sans expertise, allows one to deconstruct Old English poetic language in such a way as to rediscover the methods by which it does indeed generate the text. It is a fair call for rigor in any linguistic project, and should fascinate students who may know the names of Voloshinov or Kristeva, but not Chomsky, Jesperson, or even Bloomfield.

Important for similar reasons, and similarly technical in the language it employs is Gillian R. Overing's "The Women of Beowulf: A Context for Interpretation." Like Kiernan's essay, Overing's contribution has been revised for inclusion here. It was originally published as "Gender and Interpretation in Beowulf" in Language, Sign, and Gender in "Beowulf" (1990). Overing discusses Hildeburh, Wealtheow, and Modthryth as figures of otherness characterized respectively as silent, vocal, and unpredictable. Thus all are indexed, riddle-like, to ambiguity. My own experience is that my students -- particularly my graduate students -- welcome Overing's essay like an old friend. They have encountered other gender studies, and have come to appreciate the arguments and language in which these are generally couched. But the women of Beowulf (and my students enjoy discussing whether Grendel's mother should be among them) present problems they had not imagined from their experience with other, more clearly contextualized literatures. The essay then serves not only Overing's exploration of desire and gender in the poem, but it also leads contemporary students to look again at a work which they have all too often dismissed as an object for projects of contemporary analysis.

The business, then of this whole collection is to reclaim the value of Anglo-Saxon studies focused, as it happens in this case, on Beowulf. At the end of the first paragraph of his "Introduction," Baker asserts, "But I hope to demonstrate to students that there are many things one can do with Beowulf, and that these things are not merely ancillary to criticism, but have a life and legitimacy of their own." If reviews could have epigraphs, Baker's hope would be my epigraph for this review. My point, baldly stated, and Baker's subtly encoded in his choice of texts for the collection, is that scholarship, commentary, and criticism of a work like Beowulf constitute a community of texts whose evident "life" and "legitimacy" is metonymic of the community of scholars and critics who have sustained it over the years and whom we expect to continue sustaining it.

Finally, I have to mention the design of the book. Garland Publishing, Inc. has always required camera-ready copy from its editors except, I suppose, for projects such as its series of Garland Encyclopedias of the Middle Ages series. One editor's camera-ready copy, however, is another editor's rough draft, and it is perhaps unfair to criticize an editor for not being a typographer, compositor, or pressman. On the other hand, it is more than fair to praise what merits praise -- indeed, it is mandatory. Therefore, I have to say that Peter Baker's design for this book is both well-conceived and beautifully executed. His interest in font design for Windows and Macintosh platforms which led to the beautiful Junius family of fonts (for which, see Cathy Ball's Old English Pages at [URL:]) is very much in evidence in his choice of complementary typefaces in Beowulf: Basic Readings. The handsome three-line dropped capitals at the head of each article and other parallel divisions in the document structure are, in fact, Baker's own designs. Particularly attractive examples are the "B" on pages vii and 111, "R" on page xi, "W" on pages 3 and 155, "A" on page 51, "E" on page 79, a second "A" on page 219, and the "F" on page 261. The swash italics of the running headers harmonize well with the main text font; the use of a smaller font for the notes functions as well with notes at the end of each article as it would with footnotes; kerning and hyphenation have been handled so masterfully that there are -- to use an old compositor's test -- very few "rivers of white." From the point of view of layout and design, this is perhaps the best example of publication from camera-ready copy supplied by the editor that I have seen. Physically, the book is a joy to read.

I used Beowulf: Basic Readingsin my Beowulf class during the spring semester of 1996. It was an unqualified success; the articles were cogent and readable for both the graduates and the undergraduates in the course. I intend to use it again in 1998 when I hope to teach the poem again in Old English. Baker's labor is a grand testimony to the scholarly and critical arts many have brought to bear on Beowulf and which should inspire yet another generation to continue to explore its unending complexities.